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Otis Redding: How A High-School Dropout Became The King Of Soul
© Archive PL / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

Otis Redding: How A High-School Dropout Became The King Of Soul

With a voice that ranged from tender vulnerability to unrestrained power, Otis Redding, the King Of Soul, demanded nothing but total respect.

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All he’s asking is for a little respect when he comes home… Ostensibly a plea from a hard-working man to a girlfriend or wife, Respect, one of soul singer Otis Redding’s signature songs, carries a deeper, more resonant subtext. Released in the summer of 1965, at the height of the civil-rights movement, with Martin Luther King leading marches to Montgomery and President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act, it’s impossible to ignore a larger message about finally giving people their due.

Though Aretha Franklin added the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T – find out what it means to me” chant to her version of the song, recorded two years later, Redding was no less insistent, building, across just two minutes, from a slow burn to an incendiary outburst: “Got to, got to have it/Give it, give it, give it, give it.” With the Black Lives Matter movement making the same demand today, The King Of Soul’s plea has lost none of its urgency in the last five decades.

A Runaway Train

Born on 9 September 1941, and raised in Macon, Georgia, Otis Redding would epitomise southern soul music. Influenced by pioneering soul singer Sam Cooke and Macon’s rebellious hometown hero, Little Richard, Redding embodied both with his singing style – at once delicate and vulnerable, unstoppable as a runaway train. As a child, he learned to sing in the local Vineville Baptist Church choir while taking drum lessons on the side: clearly, rhythmic drive was always central to Redding’s powerful delivery.

With his father hospitalised after contracting tuberculosis, Redding left school in order to help at home, working a variety of low-income jobs that would put food on the table. Respect? Definitely. Fame? Not yet. He cut a few songs, performed at talent contests, but it wasn’t until a stint with Little Richard in the late 50s, singing as part of his idol’s band, The Upsetters, that Redding got a taste of success. His tenure with Richard was short-lived, but the $25 he made each night – that went far back home in Macon.

Defining Southern soul

Heading out west to Los Angeles, Redding sought a recording contract – but the south was where he belonged, destined to bring to the world a strain of raw, gutbucket soul that influenced everyone from The Rolling Stones to Brittany Howard. Returning south for a tour of the Chitlin’ Circuit, Redding cut a few sides for the local Confederate Records imprint; in 1962, after driving a bandmate to Stax Records’ studio in Memphis, Redding was allowed to sit in on the session and cut two songs of his own, Hey Hey Baby and These Arms Of Mine. The latter became his first Stax single, defining the burgeoning southern soul sound in the process: sparse arrangements, gospel-infused vocals and a nakedly emotional outpouring that pulled the listener in.

In the studio, Redding cut masterful ballads, his album titles signalling their late-night vibe: Pain In My Heart (1964), The Great Otis Redding Sings Soul Ballads, Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul (both 1965). It’s the latter that remains his masterpiece, with the “sings soul” of the title being the massive hint: dominating soul music in all its guises, he claimed Sam Cooke’s civil-rights anthem, A Change Is Gonna Come, for his own; showed Motown, in the north, how to add some southern grit to its sound with a version of The Temptations’ My Girl; and snatched (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction from the Stones, rearranging the song with horns up front, swapping Jagger’s hipster ennui for his own steadfast assertion, and teaching those London white boys what pure R&B sounded like. They learned the lesson: decades later, the Stones’ live performances of the song had more in common with Redding’s take than their own original.

Bridging Rock And Soul

On stage himself, Redding performed like a man unchained, the full power of his voice blowing minds and sound systems alike. His voice knew no restraint, and neither could Redding himself be confined, his appeal – and tastes – stretching beyond the R&B market (for which, read: black). As well as the Stones’ Satisfaction, Redding’s setlists included a take on The Beatles’ Day Tripper, while his own Respect inspired them to write Drive My Car for their aptly titled Rubber Soul album. In 1966, Redding recorded an iconic live album at LA’s Whisky A Go Go – something of an answer record to James Brown’s game-changing Live At The Apollo, but captured in a venue associated with white countercultural rock music: The Doors were the Whisky’s house band.

With The MGs’ protégés The Bar-Kays backing him on the road, Redding delivered impassioned performances night after night. Stretching one of his trademark songs, Try A Little Tenderness, into a tour de force twice its original length, the singer drove the band forward while the horn section pushed him further still, sweat dripping, as if towards a precipice. It’s no accident that Redding was invited to play rock’s first major festival, Monterey International Pop, in the summer of 1967. Bridging the rock and soul worlds, he was the only “old school” act on the bill, adding legitimacy to a new breed of psychedelicised music. Redding’s bottle-green suit may have seemed ancient against the flower children’s hippie finery, but the future of rock music was taking note: headliner Jimi Hendrix watched in awe as Redding’s barnstorming performance closed the festival’s second night, doing as much as any other act on the bill – Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother And The Holding Company included – to light the touchpaper for the Summer Of Love.

Resonating through the years

Redding’s live shows were punishing, but touring literally killed him. Flying to a show on 10 December 1967, his plane crashed in Lake Monona, four miles from its destination. Along with Redding, aged just 26, all but two members of The Bar-Kays perished in the accident (trumpeter Ben Cauley survived, while bassist James Alexander had been booked on a separate flight).

Just three days before his death, Redding had recorded arguably his lasting statement, (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay. Forlorn and introspective, the song was a departure for both Redding and Stax Records: a plea from an exhausted performer wise beyond his years. It’s tempting to read Redding’s fate in the song’s resignation – “I’ve had nothing to live for/And look like nothin’s gonna come my way” – and to hear its whistled outro as a knowing goodbye, but the singer had much more to offer. Without him, Stax Records, which had grown from a hopeful indie to a major player, with Redding as its flagship artist, was forced to rethink its musical future during a period of significant change for African-Americans – one that would have greatly benefitted from Redding’s engagement. The label rebuilt The Bar-Kays – and its strategy – in order to remain relevant in an increasingly politicised era marked by protests and the rise of the Black Panther movement. Fans, too, needed more of the singer, sending (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay to No.1 in the US, making it the first ever posthumously released single to top the charts.

In the years since, Redding’s legacy has only grown: a statue stands in his honour in Macon; five of his albums sit in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time list. New generations of musicians find inspiration in his music. Jimmy Page nodded to Tramp, a 1967 duet between Redding and Carla Thomas, with a riff he threw into Led Zeppelin’s The Lemon Song, while the track was seized upon as a key foundation stone for Golden Age hip-hop, sampled by everyone from Salt-N-Pepa to Wu-Tang Clan. Decades later, Kanye West and Jay-Z built their Watch The Throne cut Otis around Try A Little Tenderness; Redding’s original was such an integral part of the song that he earned a posthumous writing credit for it.

Watch the throne? No doubt, Otis Redding remains the crowned King Of Soul, his impassioned voice resonating through the years: give it, give it, give it, give it.

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